The future of food is mobile, plant-based, and sustainable, experts say

Zume CTO Chris Satchell, Restaurateur Tom Douglas, and Rebellyous Foods CEO Christie Lagally discuss the Future of Food at the GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

Technology is transforming every sector of the economy, including the supply chain that gets food to our kitchen table. It’s an industry ripe for innovation as concerns about climate change grow.

That’s the goal of three innovators who gathered at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle on Wednesday to discuss the future of food. The takeaway? The food system needs to shift away from meat, long-distance transportation, and unsustainable practices.

To get there, sustainability advocates have high hopes for plant-based meats that are realistic enough to change meat lovers’ dining habits. Restaurateur Tom Douglas said during the panel discussion that his customers are already embracing the Impossible Burger, a faux hamburger that he’s added to his menu. Douglas said that the Impossible Burger accounts for about 40 percent of overall hamburger sales — and it’s not just vegetarians.

“Ten percent of that is the Impossible Burger with bacon and cheese … people are eating vegetarian, not because they’re vegetarian, but because that’s what they feel like tonight,” he said.

But there are two problems with plant-based meat. It’s expensive and there isn’t enough of it. Rebellyous Foods wants to solve those problems. The startup makes vegetarian chicken products and helps traditional chicken producers transition their manufacturing operations to plant-based meat.

“There is only enough plant-based meat available for everybody in the United States to eat one meal a year,” said Rebellyous Foods CEO Christie Lagally during the future of food panel. “That’s how little there is out there … our goal is to be a scalable company so that it can effectively provide these foods to people who have limited costs and limited access.”

Agriculture accounts for 24 percent of greenhouse emissions, a statistic that pushed Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to invest in plant-based meat companies. But Gates is the first to note that making the food system more green is just one piece of the puzzle. Another 14 percent of carbon emissions come from transportation.

Zume wants to tackle both problems at once. The startup sells mobile kitchens (to reduce the travel time for food delivery), sustainable packaging, and data analytics to help food companies eliminate waste. Alongside Lagally and Douglas, Zume CTO Chris Satchell stressed the urgency of reimagining the food system.

“The kind of thing that farm to table restaurants do, you could do on a mass scale if you just had all the data across the supply chain, using it together, and the willingness to apply those optimizations to each part together as a system,” he said.

It’s a tough challenge but it’s one that the U.S. can solve, the panelists said. They agreed that it will take the same engineering horsepower that created the American industrial agriculture system in the mid 20th Century to build a sustainable food system today.

“The effort that got put into factory farming, we need to put the same effort into the food supply chain but we need to do it with a look at reducing waste, improving sustainability, reducing water utilization, reducing plastic, we need to think about all of those things,” Satchell added.

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